‘Well, I know that light is fascinating and full of scientific mystery, but mostly I use it for not walking into objects, and mostly I use ether for not walking into events. It’s there, it’s useful, it’s … not something I can study for more than ten minutes at once without falling asleep. I like mechanics. I’m not the right person to ask for mathematics.’ [loc. 4163]
Victorian London: Thaniel Steepleton is a humble telegraph clerk (capable of transcribing with one hand and sending messages with the other) who's given up his dream of being a pianist to support his widowed sister and her children. He hangs on in quiet desperation, until a reverse-burglary leaves him with a mysterious gold pocket watch, found on his pillow after a break-in. Attempts to sell or return the watch are fruitless: Thaniel thinks nothing more of it until, some months later, the watch turns out to have an alarm function that saves him from a Fenian bomb.
The watch, it turns out, is a miracle of mechanics, which has tracked Thaniel's precise location. Thaniel, in turn, tracks down the watch's maker: reclusive Japanese craftsman Keita Mori, the eponymous Watchmaker. His growing friendship with Mori, and his gradual courtship of Grace Carrow -- an Oxford physics student who is attempting to prove the existence of ether (the substance once thought to conduct light and magnetism) -- transform Thaniel's life. But Grace is wary of Mori, around whom coincidences seem to cluster, and who seems to know what other people will do before they do it.
Though The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is marketed as steampunk, it didn't match my notion of that subgenre. To be honest, it's not that firmly grounded in Victorian London either: there is little mention of religion or royalty, and (Fenians, Gilbert and Sullivan and the Japanese Village at Knightsbridge aside) the setting could have been any time, any where. That said, I was impressed by the minutae through which Mori unfolds London's attitude towards the Japanese. The bigger picture may be out of focus, but the details are clear.
I didn't read this novel for the sense of place: I read it for the characters, and the tensions between them, and the plot -- which did not go at all the way I expected. The blossoming friendship between Mori and Thaniel is fragile and lovely: Grace's esoteric studies, and her resolution to avoid marriage, demonstrate a steely determination which is tempered by her humour: and Mori's clockwork octopus is a delight. I smiled a lot and almost wept at certain points: that, for me, is a success.
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